Passing the hat for journalists

passing-hat-journalists
Guernica reached its funding goal last week. ()
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On Sept. 30, Jina Moore, a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine, made a plea to her friends and contacts: Please give Guernica money.

Since its founding in 2004, the non-profit, bi-weekly online journal covering the arts, politics and current affairs has been run on an all-volunteer basis, with minor costs like web maintenance and marketing covered by a piggybank full of reader donations.

Now the magazine is looking for a real nest egg, and it launched a Kickstarter campaign to come up with the funds.

The goal was $25,000, and by the time Moore reached out to her social network, Guernica still had $12,000 left to raise and just four days left to go.

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"I'm writing to you now, in our final days, because I didn't want to pester you like crazy all the way through. But this is real: We need your help," Moore wrote in her email, which was forwarded to Capital by someone who received it. "I hope you'll find a few dollars in the couch cushions that you can use to support an amazing magazine."

By Oct. 4, the results were in: $27,456 from 536 backers. The money will be used to shoulder costs like paying writers (a first for Guernica) who contribute to a series of four special issues in 2014. It's the first brick in what Guernica hopes will eventually become a sturdy and sustainable enterprise.

"Twenty-five-thousand dollars does not a full-time staff make," said Lisa Lucas, Guernica's (currently unpaid) publisher, in an interview with Capital. "But it does allow us to really start building."

For now, though, Guernica is passing around the hat. And they're not the only ones.

As old standard-bearers like The New York Times and The Washington Post convince people to pay for content that has basically been free since the web's Mesozoic era, a growing number of their digital underclassmen appear to be enjoying a sort of trickle-down effect on a much smaller scale.

These days, it seems like more and more readers are comfortable emptying their pockets for publications that could use the spare change. And more publications are comfortable asking for it, whether as a means of getting off the ground, boosting the bottom line or simply giving contributors their due.

"The New York Times model proved that people did not expect everything digital to be free," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst who closely monitors paid-content strategies.

While Guernica, as a 501(c)3, is taking a nod from the age-old crowdfunding model of outlets like NPR, PBS and The Nation, Doctor said "we've seen a crack" in the wall that has traditionally held back for-profit media entities from asking readers for assistance.

The trend has no doubt been goosed by the increasing popularity and success rate of Kickstarter, a D.I.Y. business incubator that launched in 2009 and has gained steam over the past year or two with media startups, many of which operate (or hope ultimately to operate) as for-profit shops.

In addition to Guernica, a number of newer digital journalism ventures have met their angels there, including Matter ($140,201), The Classical ($55,598) and Narratively ($53,739). Backers are rewarded with tokens of appreciation depending on how philanthropic they're feeling—in Guernica's case, those ranged from a sticker ($10) to "All our 2014 e-issues, a tote bag and a big old box of 10 WHOLE WONDERFUL BOOKS from our very favorite publishers" for the top contribution of $500 or more.

Websites with existing, ad-based business models are also starting to ride the reader-revenue wave by offering specialized services for relatively nominal fees. Such perks are essentially the icing on the cake for the most devoted members of their audience, who are in turn happy to shell out a couple bucks for a little something extra.

The Awl, for one, offers a "Weekend Companion" of five curated features from its archives for $1.99 a pop or $39.99 a year. Last October, Talking Points Memo introduced a $50 yearly "Prime" membership that offers "access to new features, new ways to interact, and more journalism." They got 1,000 signups within the first 10 hours.

Longreads, the longform journalism aggregator that was more or less a passion project for founder Mark Armstrong until he started doing it full-time several weeks ago, has been filling up its collection cup too.

On Sunday night, shortly before this article was filed, Armstrong was preparing a letter to the Longreads community to promote a support drive for its $3 a month/$30 annual membership program, which was introduced earlier this year. Members get exclusive access to features not previously available online; writers and publishers get paid for the rights to said features; Longreads stays afloat.

"We need your help to keep this service running," Armstrong wrote in his letter. "We can get to our financial goal faster if you contribute more. ... Your support is critical for our survival."

Armstrong said there are 1,000 paid Longreads members so far. He's aiming for 5,000.

"I don't know if there's a shift in the reader's mind that they're suddenly more comfortable paying for something," he told Capital. "It may be more about publishers making it a higher priority and making a better argument to readers about what they get when they pay."

Andrew Sullivan made just such a case when he extricated his popular blog from The Daily Beast in January and set out on his own. His plan, more or less unprecendented in the blogosphere, was to become fully funded by reader support: a minimum of $19.99 per year for unmetered access to the site after a handful of free posts—though heftier donations from the generous and good-hearted were welcomed. (Call it journalism as crowd-sourced charity.)

"No member will have any more access or benefits than any other member, but if hardcore Dishheads want to give us some love for the years of free blogging and for the adventure ahead, we’d be crazy not to take it," Sullivan told readers when he announced the news. "And we do need it, if we are to continue and grow." (He had 27,349 subscribers as of July.)

Some digital newcomers are getting creative.

The Big Roundtable, a longform site that ran a modest, $5,000 Kickstarter campaign to get the ball rolling (though it netted more than $19,000), asks readers to donate on a per-story basis. The site takes a 10-percent commission on each donation, no matter the size, while the rest (minus a small PayPal fee) goes to the author.

Beacon Reader, which launched several weeks ago, is asking readers to fund one of dozens of its partner journalists around the globe for $5 a month in exchange for access to its entire roster of writers and the content they produce.

The site's reporter-profiles almost read like some kind of "sponsor a child" program.

"Meet Jonathan M. Katz," for instance. "Jonathan uses Beacon to uncover the full story in Haiti and at home. From post-disaster cover-ups in Haiti to the ineffectiveness of recovery funds, Jonathan always sticks with a story. You’ll roam the US and abroad with him as he continues to chase the most pressing stories, wherever they may be and wherever he ends up."

As with Guernica, Beacon Reader writers have been taking the pitch directly to their nearest and dearest.

"Tweets and facebook posts about the project are what I'm asking for from you fancy people - I can pay back in booze, lots of booze. Or some other poison if you don't imbibe," wrote Barry Malone, a Qatar-based foreign correspondent, in an Oct. 1 email to his pals that one of them shared with Capital.

"If any of you do choose to subscribe, I pledge to buy you a drink/drinks worth more than the $5 every time I see you. Because, at this stage, for me, it's not about getting the $5 in my pocket. It's more about seeing if we can make this thing a going concern. And if similar things will follow."

The size and scope of experiments like this varies. It's also unlikely that any of them will supplant more tried and true business models any time soon, if at all.

But as a leg up—the boostraps that smaller publishing concerns can lift themselves up by—more and more entrepreneurs are considering whether they can pull it off.

Doctor said that even though he expects to see an increase in the number of digital media outlets passing around the tip jar, the momentum likely won't amount to more than a reliable means of creating bonus revenue streams.

"My sense is it's not gonna make a big difference, even if I'd like to believe that it would," he said. "It makes a lot of sense as a supplement, but the question is one of size."

For some outfits, the intention is not really to scale the income from donations and develop a giant organization. But at the very least, the more that readers get on board with tossing some pennies into the well of digital content, the more that publications like Guernica can start thinking about a future that might not have been so easy to envision even just a few years ago.

Having tens of thousands of dollars in the bank for the first time will give Guernica more bandwidth to look for institutional funding, (a time-consuming and demanding task), as well as making the site more attractive to potential partners, said Lucas.

"It's part of a larger initiative to think about where we want Guernica to be in 25 years," she said. "The idea is to one day be an organization that can support a staff and pay every writer."